MADISON––Mere hours before Dezman Southward was about to take to the field last week at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the professional football version of a job interview, he received a text from the folks that run the NFL Combine. He wouldn't be allowed to take part.
Southward was told he had a fracture of his C5 vertebrae discovered during his medical examination.
The defensive back from Wisconsin broke down and cried, "balled his eyes out," as he described.
"I think that was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life to be held out of it," said Southward. "It's something that I couldn't take back or change, because I'm a really competitive guy, man. You put cleats on me and cleats on other guys, and I definitely want to go out and show what I can do. So it was tough."
At first, Southward was scared. He was concerned about his quality of life. Thoughts entered his mind that he wouldn't be able to do things like bend over and pick up his children nor play with them.
On top of that, it pained Southward that he wasn't able to go out and strut his stuff at the place he saw as his best opportunity to influence NFL decision makers. He knew he was capable of putting up impressive numbers. Eye-popping, jaw-dropping numbers.
But Southward also knew he never injured his neck before, or at least not to his knowledge. So he called upon the highest power possible.
Southward and his agent sent his X-rays to orthopedic surgeon Robert Watkins, the doctor that performed Peyton Manning's neck surgery.
"He told me, 'There's no fracture, especially not in the C5. If anything, there's a slight herniation in the C4,'" said Southward. "It wasn't very much of anything. And he told me I definitely should have been out there (at the Combine) running, which really angered me.
"But at the end of the day, the light at the end of the tunnel means that I don't have a fractured neck, so that's the most important thing. I'm excited about that, and I'm ready to move forward."
Southward was cleared by Watkins to compete in Wisconsin's pro timing day on Wednesday, displaying little concern about his neck.
Finally, Southward was able to show off in front of NFL scouts, eight days later than he hoped. He didn't disappoint.
Southward was told he ran anywhere between 4.31 and 4.38 in the 40-yard dash. For comparison sake, the best time ran by a defensive back at the Combine was 4.37 seconds by Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State.
Times at on-campus pro days are notoriously fast, often inviting a degree of skepticism. But even if Southward ran a few hundredths, even a tenth slower than he was told, his time would still be impressive for a player that measured in at 6' 0 1/2" and 212 lbs.
There's a margin of error that exists in the 40 due to the surface players run on or the fact that they're being hand timed by scouts operating stop watches. But there's no margin for error in the vertical jump. It's an objective measurement. Players simply leap as high as they can reach.
Southward measured in with a 42-inch vertical, which could have perhaps been even higher had he not pushed every bar as high as Wisconsin's measuring apparatus would go.
"I know I could have gone higher, maybe an inch or two," said Southward. "But 42? Hey, I'll take it. It's definitely a number that not many guys will reach that number. At the end of the day, it shows that I'm really explosive. It shows that I can go out there and jump, explode, get out of my hips, and that's the most important thing."
Had Southward been at the Combine, his 42-inch vertical jump would have been the best number put up by a defensive back and would have tied the best overall by linebacker Ryan Shazier of Ohio State.
While Southward's athletic ability is off the charts, his production on the football field hasn't always matched his measurables. Southward is notorious for failing to come up with big plays, having intercepted only two passes in four years of college football. He was also a big reason wide receiver Bruce Ellington had six receptions 140 yards and two touchdowns in Wisconsin's Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina this past season.
But the scary part of Southward's game is there's still a lot of growth potential. He only played one year of high school football and for all intents and purposes, is still learning the game.
"It didn't surprise me. I was expecting him to do it," said teammate James White of Southward's pro day performance. "He's a guy that's freakishly athletic. I went to high school with him. I saw him when he first stepped out on the football field and did a little Nike SPARQ Combine and do better than everybody that was training all year round for it."
Southward still doesn't know where he fits in the NFL. He has experience playing safety, cornerback and nickel back in college and played all those positions in an all-star game environment at the Senior Bowl in January.
After hearing about his pro day performance, teams will be curious to examine Southward's medical condition further, a process that already appears to have begun. Southward said several NFL teams have contacted him about flying out to their facilities for private workouts and physicals.
Southward said he met with both Packers secondary coaches Darren Perry and Joe Whitt in an informal environment at the NFL Combine.
"They were great," said Southward. "I love their scheme. They're really versatile over there. You've got guys playing all over the place. I love their DBs, and I think their coaches are a reflection of the way that they play. They go out, they're hard-nosed and they're versatile. You have to love that as a DB."
Wherever he ends up being drafted, Southward is a lump of clay ready to be molded. His raw athleticism on display Wednesday showed he can play just about anywhere with the proper coaching and technique.
"Hopefully the eyes that were already on me opened up a little bit more," said Southward. "And the ones that weren't, they saw something."
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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